Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book Recommendation: Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections

Samuel R. Delany, Dark Reflections. Carroll & Graf, 2007. 295 pages. $15.95

Delany’s Dark Reflections is now out and available. Delany’s twenty-fifth novel offers a literary narrative about the black gay poet Arnold Hawley, written in a deceptively simple, elegant style that evokes a profoundly lonely soul’s powerful emotional experiences over a lifetimeembedded, of course, in a subtle and insightful depiction of his social and economic reality, just as one would expect from Delany. It’s a surprisingly fast, smooth read; I gobbled it down in two days, knowing as I did that I’d be returning to it soon. Though it ended just as it should, I wanted it to go on and on because I so loved inhabiting its language and ideas and texture.

Besides the novel’s texture, what I liked best was the sense it gave me of Arnold Hawley: he became so real to me that I feel as though I know who he was and what it would be like to be in a room with him. I loved the effect the novel creates by working backwards in Arnold Hawley’s life, by which every moment of the life acquires a complex historicity. Here Delany captures not only the difference age makes to one’s consciousness and understanding of the world, but also the difference in tone and style of the three historical settings he depicts; this novel’s 1972 matches my memory of what 1972 felt like more closely than do many of the novels actually written in 1972. (The section set in the mid-1970s, “Vashti in the Dark” has some of the feel of Dhalgren though it is definitely not Dhalgren. But then Dhalgren, for me, is the quintessential novel of the mid-1970s.) I especially loved the novel’s thematic use of certain details that continually resurface to take on different meanings at different times, as well as the poignancy of the role confusion played Arnold Hawley’s his sexual loneliness.

Dark Reflection gets my highest recommendation.

6 comments:

Josh said...

I don't get the Dhalgren comparison --Dhalgren is, of course, from the mid-1970s; but, as Bill Gibson's preface points out, it's more or less about the feel of "the Sixties." Quintessential novels from and depicting the mid-1970s would, I guess, include City of Cain, Dancing Aztecs, The Franchiser, The Shark-Infested Custard, Final Payments, and The Shadow Knows.

Looking forward to reading the book in question.

Timmi Duchamp said...

The discrepancy probably has to do with the "uneven development" (to borrow a term usually used to describe economic & technological disparities) between hip big cities like New York, London, & San Francisco on the one hand & backwaters like the one I lived in-- Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, which was a fairly short drive from the iconic Peoria. The "feel of the Sixties," for me, was an intense enforcement of the double sexual standard, frank, blatant sex discrimination, curfews for women students, nasty dress codes (in high school), illegal abortion & difficult access to contraception for unmarried young women, & so on. Of course maybe if you were a male the "feel" was different. But then when guys make generalizations about the feel of a particular era, they're not likely to notice that they're not taking into account the experiences of women.

& of course the first time I read Dhalgren was in about 1981, when social mores were beginning to alter drastically (the natural result for so many folks I knew who set out to "work within the system to change it" & ended up learning how to be happy & becoming ever more conservative conformists). Let's just say that in 1981 I was feeling rather, ah, nostalgic about the early to mid-1970s I had experienced.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Well now you've done it, Josh: thanks to you I've been thinking about life in Champaign-Urbana in the late 1960s & am being deluged with memories. Not just the many humiliating & degrading experiences young women typically encountered, like what happened when I tried, as an unmarried woman, to get oral contraceptives from a gynecologist. Or my experiences with the music composition faculty. Or all the usual workplace & classroom incidents & what it's like being stalked simply because you're female & eighteen years old.

Wrap your brain around this: as a sophomore in college, I took a job as a waitress at a campus bar/restaurant around the corner from my dorm. After I'd been working there for a couple of weeks, I got invited to an after-hours party at the apartment of Rick, the assistant manager, & Terry, the woman I thought was his partner (& wife). That night I discovered that not only were Rick & Terry not married, but they weren't even in a sexual relationship together. They were both, it turns out, partners of two other people who worked at the restaurant. This was a Big Elaborate Secret that involved wedding rings & fake wedding photos & lovey-dovey talk & a huge charade that quite a lot of people were in on. It turns out that awhile back, they did have a sexual relationship & wanted desperately to live together. But they knew that even if they could find a landlord who'd agree to rent an apartment to an unmarried couple (& that was a big if in the late 1960s), they'd be fired from their jobs if they moved in together without marrying (or at least seeming to marry). The owner just loved them, & just loved that they were a happy young couple who'd so fallen in love while employed in his establishment that they'd gotten married before they'd even finished school. You would not believe how elaborate the secret was. (& I wonder how they could stand one another, given the lengths to which they went to protect their secret.) Looking back, this all seems very bizarre to me now. But at the time, no one in on the secret had any trouble understanding why it was necessary.

What I find truly fascinating, though, is how different everything was just five years later-- & that given the shortness of cultural memory, such a scenario would have seemed totally implausible ten years later, while from the vantage of 2007 (just about 40 years later), it sounds like something I invented out of whole cloth.

Josh said...

Yeh, the uneven development issue (in geographical and class terms) struck me immediately after I wrote that: you'll recall that Chip (an aristocrat in NYC, London, and Western New York) angrily insisted on one occasion that things vis-a-vis feminism in the Seventies were very different from what you (working-class in Shampoo-Banana) and Dick Macksey (shabby-genteel in Baltimore) claimed. "I was THERE!" each of you asserted.

Was Gibson "not likely to notice that they're not taking into account the experiences of women"? Yes and no --he's aware of how subjective his recollection is, but it's pretty damn male-gazey, ain't it (anthroptic?)?

Eleanor said...

For me Dhalgren has the feeling of the late 60s and early 70s. The Sixties did not begin in 1960, but somewhat later, and lasted until the Vietnam War ended. I went to college in Philadelphia starting in 1960 and lived in Minneapolis, New York and Detroit in the period 1964-74. Detroit was the most amazing, violent, energetic, radical and Dhalgren-like of those cities. Dalany got everything right, even the poets. I know he was writing about New York, But for me it was Detroit.
I'm reading Adrienne Rich at the moment. Her late 60s poems remind me of my poetry in the same period. Gee, that era was dark and crazy, but also very interesting.

Josh said...

Of course, Eleanor: the Sixties begin with John Henry Faulk breaking the blacklist, or with The Other America, or with the JFK assassination, or with The Feminine Mystique, or with the Beatles, or with The Man in the High Castle --i.e. '62 or '63. But I thought they ended with the Kent State killings? I'd hate to recategorize everything from the first half of the Seventies as Sixties artifacts.

And is Bellona (geographical location notwithstanding) really New York? I would assume it also contains a lot of Delany's San Francisco experience, at least.